This is what happened in Belarus. Following the rigged elections on August 9th, mass peaceful protests began in Belarus which were brutally suppressed. Thousands of people were subjected to torture and inhuman, degrading treatment. For three days straight the authorities blocked internet access and people did not know what was happening in the country. When internet access was restored, Belarusians could not shed themselves of the sense of fear. The media reported on the mass beatings and torture of detainees.
Those three days have permanently divided the population into two unequal opposing groups: the security forces (the armed minority) and the protesters (the peaceful majority). Today, the uniform in Belarus is associated with blood, violence, and brutality. These are the people for whom orders and power were more important than human life, law, and justice.
Leaving Belarus is not the end of it
Tens of thousands of Belarusians were forced to leave the country for fear of reprisals and criminal persecution. Sometimes activists managed to leave the country legally with a visa, but there were also those who were forced to hide from the authorities’ surveillance. There were also those who knew they could not just leave the country. They had to cross the border on foot, hiding in the woods – a practice not seen in Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
While leaving Belarus might be the only chance to save their lives, for many activists neither the repression nor the persecution is over once they settle in other countries. The Belarusian regime is currently performing a systematic and massive purge with the aim of destroying civil society in Belarus inside and outside the country. In recent months, the regime has found effective tools for attacking activists and leaders in their presumed safety abroad, not hesitating from taking down an airplane or arranging the killing of a person abroad.
However, one of the most effective tools at their disposal are fabricated criminal cases, which are initiated even against those who have already left the country. This is a powerful tool as it allows the Belarusian authorities to put the person’s name on an international wanted list and use it as a lever of pressure and intimidation for political refugees. Based on their inclusion, these persons are under constant threat of being subjected to extradition for criminal proceedings once they travel out of the country of their asylum. In other cases, false criminal proceedings are preventing or making it difficult to legalizing their residence abroad as they are mentioned in criminal records which need to be submitted along with the residence permit application in some EU member states. The number of people who have been affected by such reprisals is growing and is unlikely to cease.
The regime always finds a way
Former criminal investigator Andrei Ostapovich of Belarus resigned on August 16 after the outbreak of mass protests, writing a letter of resignation in which he listed specific examples of police brutality against protesters. Not wanting to continue his service, he left his position and then immediately left the country. He went to Russia but was soon detained by the Russian FSB and taken to Belarus with a weight chained to his hands and a bag over his head.
For about five days Andrei hid in the forests and walked more than 70 kilometers to escape Belarus.
Andrei Ostapovich became one of the first security officials who publicly and categorically opposed the system of the Belarusian regime.
From investigator to terrorist in six months
It should be noted that the Belarusian authorities are persecuting former security officials with a vengeance. In the end, they dared to betray the system that raised them.
Igor Loban’s story is one more about overcoming fear to do the right thing and is a story about striving to make his country better. In 2020, he held the rank of major and worked as a major investigator in the Department of the Investigative Committee of the Grodno Region.
On August 10, Igor began to participate in the peaceful protests. On August 13, Igor made a public statement condemning the violence and appealed to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus to resign for the atrocities and brutality committed against civilians.
Following this Igor, now a former investigator, had to escape persecution and later flee the country with his wife and two children, with the younger just 3 months old.
Igor did not feel safe for long. In 2021, the Belarusian KGB put Igor Loban on the terrorist list as a criminal defendant in connection with an act of terrorism committed by an organized group.
At that time, the regime accused not only Igor of attempting a coup d’etat, but also Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and colleagues from an initiative created by former Belarusian law enforcement officers to help restore lawfulness in Belarus. All of them were included in the list of terrorists under an article that provides for life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Thousands of people were leaving the police, however many are afraid to speak about it openly and publicly for fear of persecution and the possibility of being recognized as traitors to their homeland.
However, the regime continues to persecute not only former security officials, but also activists who took part in peaceful protests.
Does the regime have long arms or are we letting it persecute activists?
On September 13, 2021, 27-year-old activist Makariy Malakhovsky was detained in Poland. At 22:30 police came to the apartment where he lived. They checked Makariy’s documents and detained him in connection with information that his name was on an internationally wanted list. It is worth emphasizing that Makariy has been living in Poland since November 2020 on a humanitarian visa. (Poland has issued more than 15,000 humanitarian visas for repressed Belarusians. The day after meeting with the prosecutor, Makariy was released, having found his case to be politically motivated.
Still, there are those who are much less fortunate. Belarusian citizen Valentin Vlasik is still in prison in Budapest awaiting trial in his case. Valentin was a car activist in Akrestino (a prison in Minsk known for the brutal torture of detainees), who also came to Poland in September 2020 on a humanitarian visa.Valentin also took an active part in peaceful protests, was detained by security forces, and was convicted by the court of the Soviet district of the city of Minsk for violating the procedure for organizing or holding mass events.
Valentin Vlasik was detained back in July 2021 at the border between Hungary and Croatia. He remains in prison to this day.
A complicit Russia
Leaving through Russia has proven to be a risky and unwise move as Alexei Kudin, a Belarusian Thai box athlete, experienced. Russian authorities detained him and returned him to Belarus despite a decision of the European Court of Human Rights prohibiting Russia to do so. Today, Alexei is serving a two and a half year sentence in a regular prison.
Undoubtedly, Russia is an ally of Belarus and will continue to use the regime for its own purposes.
This is not the only case in which Russia has assisted the regime in persecuting its opponents, and it will hardly be the last.
The regime will stop at nothing
Belarus is a country of funhouse mirrors, where investigators become terrorists for refusing to carry out criminal orders and activists are persecuted through Interpol for helping victims of violence and torture.
The case of Roman Protasevich shows that the Belarusian regime will stop at nothing. It will continue to look for ways to persecute its political opponents in Belarus, across Belarus, and in Russia, Poland, Hungary, or in other countries.
In addition, the current situation at the Polish-Belarusian border shows that the Belarus regime is capable of actions not only against its own citizens but also against the EU and its members. In facilitating the arrivals of desperate people from the Middle East to the borders of the EU the regime has decided to exploit greatest weakness of the current EU – a lack of agreement on asylum and migration policy. The Belarus regime knows that putting the Polish border under the pressure of arrival of people seeking asylum means hitting them in a sensitive spot. The regime is using migrants as hostages, thereby increasing pressure on the European Union. In the meantime, the current confrontation at the border is causing suffering and leaving people in distress, inhuman conditions, and at risk of death. The regime, however, is indifferent to human lives.
We see that the Belarus regime and its allies can inflict pain and suffering on people beyond its own borders. These actions are motivated by a desperate regime that is trying to preserve its dictatorship and power and by the various self-interested motives of its allies.
Given the situation, one could easily lose hope that anything will ever improve. However, lack of hope would be the greatest achievement for the Belarusian regime. Through its actions, it aims to break the opposition at home and abroad to prevent any future rebellion, to frighten all remaining activists, and to prevent them from finding allies and assistance for their cause. But we must not let it happen.
EU countries must ensure that opposition activists and leaders will continue to find safety within their borders and will be supported and protected to carry on their work to change the regime from abroad. There must be procedures and instruments to prevent the regime from exploiting international criminal mechanisms to persecute activists and opposition leaders. Also, states must continue to ensure that refugees are able to seek safety and find asylum. We must remember that the regime is a threat not only to Belarusian society but also to all others. In conclusion, it is important to emphasize that international mechanisms for the protection of the rights of political refugees should be aimed at the protection and safety of repressed Belarusians, and not be used as an instrument in the hands of the regime.
The article was prepared by a participant of the SlovakAid scholarship program.